By Angela Felsted
In 1999, one year after I graduated from college, I agreed to marry someone I hardly knew. We had been dating less than three months and neither of us had reason to rush things. He wasn’t dying; I wasn’t pregnant; and we both had our US citizenship. My younger brother, who was serving a two-year Mormon mission, wanted me to delay the marriage until he got home. I refused, but in defense of my rash decision, there were two things pushing me toward the altar: romantic love, and a desire to hold onto my virginity until my nuptials.
Turmoil set in after our honeymoon. I slept on the couch a lot. (My in-laws and parents were unaware of my struggles since I put on a smile and said everything was fine.) It seemed like the man I lived with had changed overnight, and I wanted my fiancé back. He had been so thoughtful while we dated—bringing me daisies, holding my hand, snuggling with me on the couch. I had thought, when we married, that I’d wake up in his arms each morning, or fall asleep looking into his brown eyes. Instead my husband made the bed with separate blankets. He went stiff when I embraced him and took issue with my “clinginess.” When I worked to keep an optimistic outlook, I could accept his need for space. Other times I felt desperate and alone. Was I foolish to believe marriage would be blissful?
Twelve years later, I still ask myself this question. I am 35, with a husband who has learned to hug me when I cry, four kids finally old enough to dress themselves, and a new illusion shattered: that motherhood is a fulfilling and idyllic legacy.
With kids in elementary school, I thought I’d miss the infant stage—the rush of love I got from watching my newborn son in sleep, lashes spread out like half moons against his cheeks. Rather I feel like I’m leaving a dark tunnel, with tantrums, dirty diapers, and sleepless nights behind me. In the years before I had children, I didn’t fear parenting because I believed myself an expert. This wasn’t pride so much as ignorance; I put my younger sister to bed when I was 10, started babysitting at 12, worked at a daycare center at 19, and looked down my nose at parents who could not control their children.
There were a lot of things I failed to grasp as a young single woman. My choice to marry a man I’d dated for less than six months for emotional reasons (“romantic love”), can be attributed to the naïve storybook belief that everyone has a match. And my decision to place sexual morality above the modern notion of testing the waters (“a desire to hold onto my virginity until my nuptials”) is a principle modeled by my mother, who chose to stay home with her five children in the seventies and eighties, when second-wave feminism called rigid gender roles oppressive.
Growing up in a traditional Mormon home, I saw no problems with the patriarchal model my parents used. My father presided insofar as he chose which of his kids would say grace at the dinner table. He brought home a paycheck, gave the occasional priesthood blessing, and taught me how to ride a bike and throw a Frisbee. When my brothers turned twelve and were ordained Deacons, they passed the bread and water each Sunday and began to prepare for their missions through study and prayer. I was taught that a woman had no greater calling than to marry a worthy priesthood holder and rear a family. In high school, my female church leaders put together a fashion show where we wore our mother’s wedding dresses. I’d never kissed a boy, never been out on a date, and worried about placing so much value on something I could not control. At this point I had yet to hear anyone state that stay-at-home mothers were oppressed. My father was (and remains) a man who does dishes and vacuums floors. Even so, I refused to base my worth on men’s opinions, and chose instead to focus on my education.
My parents were proud when they dropped me off at Brigham Young University (owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) in September of 1994. I shared a kitchen with five other girls who could not have been more different. Two of them planned to pursue their degrees come hell or high water, one made it known she would put it on hold for the right man, and the two remaining had enrolled for the sole purpose of finding a husband. Apparently, they viewed forking out thousands of dollars to a college they had no intention of graduating from as an investment rather than a waste of money.
In fairness, if their church leaders had been anything like mine, these girls had been told in every meeting and activity that a woman had no greater calling than to marry a righteous priesthood holder and rear a family. They simply wanted their lives to start.
Last night as I lay in bed staring at the ceiling fan to the left of my bed, I tried to explain to my husband that the pressure he felt to go on a mission at 19 is exactly like the pressure Mormon girls feel to get married to a worthy man. My husband wisely mentioned how tiresome it is to hear women in their twenties label themselves old maids. I had one such roommate my junior year who asked me how I could stand my single status when she believed hers meant there was something wrong with her. I kept myself from laughing at the lunacy of her statement only because she was about to cry. What I should have done was ask her why she needed a man (or anyone else) to tell her she was lovable?
I mention this as a tangent, a piece of the bigger picture, but it is also a necessary part of the story. In 1972, when my 31-year-old mother, who worked in DC as a secretary for the FBI, married a musician seven years younger than herself, she’d taken a leap of faith not uncommon for a Mormon woman. By the time she was 45, she had four healthy children and a 6-year-old son newly diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes. The church took care of her needs. Meals were brought in, childcare provided. How is it that the same patriarchal system which afforded her so much security had the power to chip away at my roommate’s self-esteem by defining her as a wife and mother before she had even married?
What my parents and youth leaders really wanted was for us girls to find love, raise a family and be productive citizens. I don’t think anyone intended to create a culture where single women and those who deal with infertility struggle with their worth as human beings.
With single parent households rising and half of new marriages failing in the United States, the Mormon patriarchy is clinging harder than ever to traditional marriage. Preparing young women for motherhood by holding up pictures of LDS temples like those of Cinderella’s castle, where prince charming will whisk them away and give them a blissful storybook ending. But what most of us find upon entering our fairy tale kingdom is that the servants have been dismissed, and that we must build our relationship without a personal maid to cover up the girth of our frustrations, or a laundress to wash out the stains of our emotional baggage.